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By Mary Chang
on Friday, 31st October 2014 at 12:00 pm
Arguably, the most famous thing that late Factory Records boss and journalist Tony Wilson ever said was, “but this is Manchester. We do things differently here”. The same can be said for bands in the North: far away from the reach, influence and trappings of London, the majority of them choose not to leave their home for the big smoke, instead making their name under their own terms, many thriving thanks to old-fashioned determination and incredibly hard graft.
Little Comets are one of the bright stars from Newcastle, though the brothers Coles and their growing families now call the Midlands (Birmingham to be more exact) home. The trio – singer/guitarist Rob Coles, his brother Mickey on guitar and Matt Hall on bass, supplemented by live drummer David “Greenie” Green – decided earlier this year to go it alone and leave Dirty Hit Records to strike out on their own The Smallest Label for all future releases. One of their great ongoing marketing plans in 2014 has been to release a series of EPs in lieu of a full album. (This will come later, in February 2015, when ‘Hope is a State of Mind’ will be released.) Monday sees the release of the third and final EP in the trilogy, ‘The Sanguine EP’, which follows ‘The Gentle EP’ (starring the brilliant ‘Little Italy’) released in February and ‘Salt’ in June. As seen with those previous records, Rob Coles’ lyrical content continues to be weighty and reflective, while the music is intelligent.
The foot-stompingly good ‘Ex-Cathedra’ begins this EP. As described by Coles himself on this entry on the band’s blog, the title comes from a Latin phrase “from the seat” that is used to describe the infallibility of the Pope’s thoughts and decisions. But ultimately, Coles wrote the lyrics to it in remembrance of his son William’s birth: the word ‘sanguine’ (frankly not used enough these days) that appears in the EP title also makes an appearance here as a sign of optimism, and the words “never let the winsome die” further this upbeat feeling.
The moniker of ‘Creeping Up Appearances’ is no doubt a pun on the BBC’s farcical tv series starring Patricia Routledge, but in some ways it’s a perfectly appropriate title if you consider Hyacinth Bucket’s primary goal throughout the series: to keep up her and her husband Richard’s appearance, things are business as usual as she continues her reign of snobbery while totally unaware of how she really appears to be to other people. While the guitars are suitably jaunty for Little Comets’ fare, the actual topic Coles is talking about is how the status quo is being maintained in Parliament while no-one is being held accountable. The overall instrumentation is restrained, allowing for the Comets’ trademark harmonies to shine bright.
With cheerful guitar noodle-y bits that sound like country western crossed with Jimmy Page’s parts in ‘Over the Hills and Far Away’, ‘Cover Your Rain’ (shown acoustically live above) is the most instrumentally interesting track of the EP. Though the two songs sound different and have entirely different purposes, I can’t explain why this song reminds me of ‘A Little Opus’, the title track of their second studio album ‘Life is Elsewhere and it’s really bothering me. Maybe it’s time for me to sit down for another chat with the lads and pick their brains again to get to the bottom of this irksome feeling in my psyche.
And while I had their attention, I’d also thank them for ‘The Assisted’. It is in stark contrast with the rest of the EP, as it is presented as simply as humanly possible, with just Rob Coles’ voice and him playing piano. He’s explained it’s about assisted suicide and not wanting to live any longer with a terminal illness. As you can probably imagine, this is quite loaded subject matter; in the wrong hands and without true consideration of the gravity of such a situation, a song like this could easily come across completely insincere and out of touch, the song equivalent of the most terrible of train wrecks.
Instead, Coles has written a truly beautiful, moving piece, showing an astonishing gentleness and cognisance of a difficult decision, and a final one at that. It’s a real tearjerker. For those of us who have had to contemplate for ourselves or for others such a fate, it’s not something that can or should be taken lightly. Even if the song doesn’t resonate with you personally, you can use it as one of many examples of the Little Comets back catalogue of their great artistry. If you haven’t figured this out already while following their story, Little Comets are a band who aren’t afraid to defy convention, to touch hot button topics like this and deal with them head on, and we should thank our lucky stars every day for this.
‘The Sanguine EP’ will be released on Monday, the 3rd of November, on the band’s own The Smallest Label. Their third album ‘Hope is a State of Mind’ can now be pre-ordered on their PledgeMusic Web site, along with the opportunity to purchase a whole series of unique and limited edition items. The album will be released on the 16th of February 2015. You can stream EP track ‘The Assisted’ below.
By Mary Chang
on Monday, 27th October 2014 at 12:00 pm
The Staveley-Taylor sisters – Emily and Jessica and Camilla – are better known as the Staves, now well known for their jaw-droppingly brilliant, familial-driven harmonies. When you’re this good, you don’t need a whole lot of instrumentation, and I feel pretty honoured to have seen them play a stripped back session as part of the bill put together by Communion Records’ Ben Lovett of Mumford and Sons fame at my first SXSW in 2012.
After several early high-profile touring slots supporting the likes of the (now defunct) Civil Wars and their most current highly acclaimed and sold out UK tour this month, it seems strange that the three sisters haven’t released a follow up to 2012 debut album ‘Dead & Born & Grown’ yet. One can only assume that they’ve biding their time, continually honing their craft and choosing to release music only a trickle at a time, under their own terms. The latest from the Staves’ fountain comes in the form of the three-track EP ‘Blood I Bled’, out today on Atlantic Records.
In a classic example of an artist suffering for their art, the EP was produced in the dead of winter in Wisconsin by Bon Iver mastermind Justin Vernon. Just from the title alone, you know already this was going to be a painful affair. The title track has been released as a single and as should be expected, ‘Blood I Bled’ is the standout on the EP. The lyrics speak of a storm coming (“calm the gathering rain”) but of a relationship confused: “suffering as I suffer you / you when you speak of pain / if I was, if I am, if I did, if I have”. The strings and horns lend an amazing grandeur to what might have been an otherwise sparse Staves track, and they suit the powerful vocals, expressing conflict and bewilderment, well.
‘Open’ opens the EP initially gently and pleasingly but as the song rolls on, it seems like Vernon’s contribution was to make this release dark, as crackles and an ominous backbeat more suited to Patrick Wolf’s darker days give the song an overall unsettling feeling. Third track ‘America’ reads like a love letter to their temporary home, the girls requesting “do not disturb me ‘til the morning”, while “drinking in the evening and sinking in the sun”. Less dramatic than ‘Open’ and less emphatic than ‘Blood I Bled’, it’s more the sweetly-finishing song that most Staves listeners are used to. It’s a nice enough group of songs; there is little to criticise here, except maybe more variety between the tracks would have added some autumnal spice?
The ‘Blood I Bled’, the latest from the Staves, is out today on Atlantic Records. If you purchase the EP from iTunes, you’ll also get a bonus track, a special remix of ‘Open’ by Justin Vernon that you can listen to below.
At a time when the term apathy is almost an outlawed word in Scotland, it’s ironic that an album by a band from north of Hadrian’s Wall inspires an overwhelmingly apathetic feeling within me. From the beginning of We Were Promised Jetpacks‘ third outing ‘Unravelling’ – barring sparse sections of the record – all I could think was what else I could be doing rather than listen to this record.
Maybe I’ll listen to the new We Are the Ocean song ‘ARK’. That’s been buzzing around my head nicely for a while. Or perhaps I’ll try and write a feature piece on that BBC Music cover creation of ‘God Only Knows’, to delve into the madness where they put Dave Grohl in the same vein as (definition of flash in the pan) Sam Smith. Or perhaps I’ll listen to that 30-second snippet of the new Foo Fighters album in the documentary promo.
For me, those thoughts gave the underlying impression of an album that failed to do what I demand from music. It neither grabbed me, nor did it take me on a journey, nor did it inspire any poignant emotion within me – barring apathy – if that can be classified as a discernable emotion. I didn’t feel it was truly experimental either; there was nothing which jumped out and grabbed me and made me think, nobody else is doing that at the moment.
The record truly just doesn’t get going until quarter of an hour in, despite flecks of promise at the end of LP opener ‘Safety in Numbers’. ‘Night Terror’ at least had enough about to wake me from the faux-slumber I drifted into at the top of the album. Perhaps I was expecting too much? But when the NME call their second album “Punchy, literate guitar music”, I expect a bit of punch before around 25 minutes into the blooming thing. ‘A Part of It’ starts off with a bit of bite and vigour, almost enough to nudge me awake from my stasis.
From the brilliantly angst-ridden breakout record of ‘These Four Walls’, We Were Promised Jetpacks showed a great promise in the brilliantly honest songwriting that underpinned the power of their debut outing. Despite their being an almost overwhelming sense of anxiety throughout ‘Unravelling’, this album just doesn’t hit the emotional highs and lows that predecessors have found the note on. As far as British post-rock is going, the group looked certain to push their way to the forefront, but this album despite having all the sheen of a brilliant production and some slick guitar work just feels a little underwhelming.
I just thought a band with the word ‘jetpacks’ in the title may be a little more exciting with maturity, but even after ‘Unravelling’, I still think we’re waiting for lift-off.
Scottish band We Were Promised Jetpacks‘ third album ‘Unravelling’ is out now on FatCat Records. Read Mary’s review of previous single ‘I Keep It Composed’ here.
When an artist’s debut album garners a Mercury Prize nomination and two Brit Awards, following it up with a second full release must seem a monumental proposition. Undaunted by his early success with 2011’s ‘Every Kingdom’, Ben Howard has succeeded in not only fulfilling but exceeding the expectations he set forth for himself with his new release, ‘I Forget Where We Were’. Where ‘Every Kingdom’ alternated between quiet introspection and uptempo folk-pop, ‘I Forget Where We Were’ takes a darker, more dramatic turn, replacing carefully crafted hooks with broader instrumental sections and an extended sonic palette.
Produced once again by drummer Chris Bond, ‘I Forget Where We Were’ is more pared back than the lengthy ‘Every Kingdom’, but the individual songs on the new album are characteristically expansive, with 7 of the 10 tracks exceeding the 5-minute mark. Most notable among those is the epic ‘End of the Affair’. Though it appears late in the overall sequence, the early single release of this song set the tone for the album, swapping Howard’s usual warm acoustic instrumental setting for one based in the echoes of electric guitars. Which is not to say that the song lacks emotional connection; indeed Howard’s rasping vocals drip with the sad bitterness of his lyrics. Each repeat of the chorus – “living without her / living at all / seems to slow me down / living forever / hell, I don’t know / do I care, do I care / the thunder’s rumbled sound” – is more anguished building into the frenetic, breathtaking coda.
The evocatively reverberant electric guitar riff of opening track ‘Small Things’ introduces the new sound without preface, offsetting the ominous vocal line of the chorus, “has the world gone mad or is it me? / all these small things, they gather round me”. The deep angst in the closing instrumental section segues flawlessly into the driving beat of second track ‘Rivers in Your Mouth’. Title track and recent single ‘I Forget Where We Were’ is more rock than folk with its wailing guitars and crashing cymbals. The electric guitar solo in the bridge section perfectly illustrates the growing dissonance and despair of a relationship starting to unravel.
Among the howling guitars and propulsive drums, Howard weaves in hints of his signature acoustic folk sound. The rhythmic finger-picked guitar figure of ‘In Dreams’ is both ethereal and portentously energetic, matched with a moaning hum in the backing vocals and and a bowed string countermelody. ‘She Treats Me Well’ is a soulful acoustic ballad whose slight blues inflection grows stronger as its equally blues-tinged lyrics play out.
Amazingly, the songs on ‘I Forget Where We Were’ maintain their high level of intensity and focus into the second half of the album. ‘Evergreen’ pinpoints the distant wintery chill that characterises most of the record, the lyric “there in the lights you said something, but I can’t remember what” capturing the essence of memory that is fading, yet still haunting in its emotion. In standout track ‘Conrad’, Howard makes lyrical reference to Polish-English author Joseph Conrad, comparing his former lover to the breached ship in Conrad’s ‘Lord Jim’ and his protagonist to the novel’s title character. Closing track ‘All is Now Harmed’ continues the theme of disillusionment, but returns to a more sensual musicality, building to a soaring instrumental dynamic with the repeated chorus “what is in your nature looms inside your blood / hold me in harm’s wake, baby, all is now harmed”.
Thematically, ‘I Forget Where We Were’ combines restrained intellect with a sense of slow-burning emotion just below the surface. It’s not as heart-on-sleeve as ‘Every Kingdom’, but musically, it has more edge, more bite. Howard has refined his songwriting to the point where every sonic choice has definite musical or emotional intent, and the concentrated tracklisting allows each song to deliver its full emotional impact. It’s rare to hear a sophomore album more powerful than its hit predecessor debut, especially one as critically acclaimed as ‘Every Kingdom’, but Howard has truly outdone himself here.
‘I Forget Where We Were’ by Ben Howard is out now on Universal/Island Records. Howard will embark on a sold out tour of the UK and Ireland in December.
Alt-folk trio Bear’s Den have just released their much-anticipated debut album ‘Islands’, after achieving critical success with two previous EPs. Signed to acclaimed UK/US record label Communion, the band took part in the label’s Austin to Boston Tour in March 2012 on the strength of their first EP, ‘Agape’, before releasing ‘Without/Within’ in October 2013.
Now comprised of frontman Andrew Davie, drummer Kevin Jones, and guitar and banjo player Joey Haynes, Bear’s Den have been on TGTF’s radar for several years now, dating back to July 2011. But Davie cites the following year, 2012, as a major turning point for the band, starting with the recruitment of Haynes. “I got goose bumps at the first rehearsal”, he recalls. “We’ve got wildly disparate influences, but the three of us together have got real chemistry.” Then the aforementioned cross-country tour of America, beginning at SXSW 2013, saw them join the likes of fellow Communion-associated acts Ben Howard, Nathaniel Rateliff and The Staves. “That was the point we really bonded as a band”, acknowledges Davie.
I first encountered Bear’s Den myself when I reviewed ‘Sahara’ from the ‘Without/Within’ EP, and I was lucky enough to see their repeat appearance at SXSW 2014 earlier this year. A mere 6 months later, they have emerged with a full LP combining a handful of previously released tracks with newly composed songs, including recent singles ‘Elysium’ and ‘Above The Clouds of Pompeii’.
The album title ‘Islands’ shares its inspiration with the moniker of the band itself, as Davie reveals in the accompanying press release. He says that Maurice Sendak’s 1963 children’s story ‘Where The Wild Things Are’ allows “a dual perspective of seeing the world through both a kid’s and an adult’s eyes. A lot of our songs address the world in the same way. Bear’s Den is our name for the island the kid escapes to”. The island metaphor goes back to early track ‘Stubborn Beast’, included late in the tracklisting here, which Davie says “was the first song our manager heard and connected with. The isolated nature of it embodies pretty much everything we’re trying to express”.
The album’s general theme of exploring personal relationships is more straightforward in some songs than others, encompassing the idea of platonic love in opening track ‘Agape’ and the idea of an idyllic afterlife in ‘Elysium’. The child-adult dichotomy is sharply illustrated in ‘Above the Clouds of Pompeii’, which considers the instability of a child’s relationship to his parents. The Biblical setting of ‘Isaac’ reverses that perspective, examining the relationship of parent to child in the lyric “Isaac, I could never learn / that a father’s love must be earned / while your mother need not learn / how to love you”. The opposition is fully elucidated in the music as well, with the gradually building instrumental background of ‘Above the Clouds of Pompeii’ contrasting the static, introspective setting of ‘Isaac.’
The overall feel of the music on the album is atmospheric and ethereal, often lulling the listener into a trance with its subtly layered beauty. The warm acoustic sounds of ‘Agape’ and closing ballad ‘Bad Blood’ are balanced in the more progressive rock feeling of ‘The Love That We Stole’ and ‘Think of England’, but nothing on the album ever threatens to cross into the frenetic folk energy of the inevitably-compared Mumford and Sons. Davie’s calm, even lead vocals and the steady harmonies in the backing vocals give ‘Islands’ a sense of stability and continuity, providing context for a few surprising moments, including the jarring lyric “I want to fuck away all my fear” in the dynamic climax of the album ‘When You Break’.
If ‘Islands’ is a somewhat predictable full length debut, it’s only because Bear’s Den have taken plenty of time to refine their sound and their songwriting before releasing it. Here, they’ve taken what clearly works best for them and displayed it to their best advantage, combining simple folk song structures with thought-provoking lyrics and effective instrumental arrangements to create a record that is at once cohesive and expansive, appealing to both intellect and emotion.
Bear’s Den‘s debut album ‘Islands’ is out today via Communion Records / Caroline International. They will tour the UK and Ireland in early 2015; all the details can be found right here.
By Mary Chang
on Tuesday, 7th October 2014 at 12:00 pm
From his very first single ‘Better Man Than He’ with a promo video filmed from inside an MRI machine, it was clear that Sivu would be an artist with a difference. Early on in his career, Page’s sound under his moniker Sivu was described by many as ‘eclectic’, and while using this adjective to describe his music is good, I don’t think the one word does his style justice. What makes ‘Something on High’, Sivu’s debut album for Atlantic Records, particularly of interest is that no two songs on this 11-track album sound alike, yet with successive tune, you’re drawn further into his world of fragility and poignancy.
Known to his mum as James Page, like many young people wanting a change of scenery, the singer/songwriter left Cambridgeshire for the bright lights of London. As might be expected for sensitive souls such as his, the transition took an emotional toll on him, causing him to reflect on the meaning of life and an individual’s place in this world. It’s one of the reasons not to be surprised that a major theme of the LP is the finding of and acceptance of the fragile, tender beauty of life in desperate, lonely situations. If that sounds pretty despondent, it is. But it is meant to be, reminding you of the painful cries of Daughter’s Elena Tonra on ‘Landfill’ and ‘Smother’, leaving you wondering why Communion didn’t snap up Page for their illustrious roster. (He also happens to be touring as the main support for another Communion artist, the Mercury Prize-nominated Nick Mulvey, starting on Friday.) Was he just too out there, too weird? But that’s a conversation for another time…
The album is peppered liberally with Sivu’s past successful singles and EP contents, which makes the whole affair a treasure trove for new fans to discover anew while providing a handy. Remarkably upbeat past single ‘Can’t Stop Now’ comes in at the fifth position on this album and provides a good dose of levity. ‘Better Man Than He’, with its oddly comforting repeated “lo lo los”, was written by Page about a friend’s troubles, but it has a wonderful everyman feeling, “we’ll find faith in the most magical of places / and find home in the smallest of rooms / we’ll find life in the most barren of faces / we’ll touch Christ in impending doom”.
It is probably now time to note that while I don’t think he planned on it specifically, religion is another natural theme on this album, as existentialism and mortality are explored in this past summer’s brilliant single ‘Miracle (Human Error)’ I reviewed back in June. The allegory of Noah’s Ark specifically is used as a plot device in previous EP title track ‘Bodies’, with the mesmerising rhythm and Page’s sweeping melodic vocal sonically conjuring up the image of looming, destructive floodwaters as a metaphor for wiping the slate clean and starting over in life.
And there are even more brilliant gems beyond these, all eliciting the purest of emotions. ‘Sleep’ is the self-deprecating, 2014 sister to the Smiths’ ‘Sing Me to Sleep’, with the tear-jerky lyrics “I’m a cruel, cold-hearted waste of space / now let me sleep so I can slip away” quite possibly going beyond in the waterworks stakes than Morrissey’s own. Album opener ‘Feel Something’ seems to speak to society’s tendency for indifference, or at least indifference on the surface with hiding all true feelings inside. (Sounds a bit like typical English stiff upper lip, eh?) When Page croons, “’cause I don’t really care if you break me / I’m reading signals in the dark that’s gonna find and take me down to our death”, you’d have to be a stone not to feel an ache deep within your heart. Loneliness and the desire to reach out and touch base with someone far away, either physically or emotionally, is examined wonderfully in ‘Communicate’, as the soft strings and other instrumentation beautifully frame Page’s falsetto.
Page has said the title of this album, ‘Something on High’, was inspired by the Vincent Van Gogh painting ‘Sorrowing Old Man (At Eternity’s Gate)'; the Dutch artist completed the work 2 months before committing suicide. He has said he chose the album title not for its religious overtones but to reflect the personal self-doubt and uncertainty he felt while he was writing the songs in unfamiliar surroundings. However, taking into account the final product that will be out in the shops next week, Page should be proud of his art and confident that the truest sentiments he has put into his music will find many new fans able to relate to and eagerly embrace those feelings.
‘Something on High’, the debut album from Sivu, is out next Monday, the 13th of October, on Atlantic Records. Page himself offers up a track by track analysis of the album below. He will be playing a headline show at London Oslo Hackney next Tuesday, the 14th of October; he also begins an opening slot as primary support for Nick Mulvey on his UK tour starting Friday in Falmouth.
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